Exhibition review: Man Ray Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, until May 27 2013
Man Ray – who we just about know was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in South Philadelphia 122 years ago – is a figure whose artistic ubiquity belies his personal mystery. His are the moody black and white centres of a million posters, portraits, postcards and, almost a century after he began working as a portrait photographer to fund his work as a painter, imitations.
© Man Ray Trust / ADAGP, Paris / DACS, London 2012. Courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives
Moving to Paris in 1921, accompanied by Marcel Duchamp, with whom he had tried to strike up a Dada movement in New York, where their friendship began, Radnitzky was both an outsider and the portrayer of the avant-garde.
When he moved back to the US as World War II broke out, his sitters were equally glamorous film stars such as Ava Gardner, Ruth Ford and Dolores del Rio. And even when the whiff of pretension seems to hang over them like an overpowering fug, it’s impossible to envisage not being seduced by the cool cast of posers in the NPG’s new display of his work, an oddly rare major museum showcase featuring around 150 pieces which have not been seen on these shores before.
They are bookended by two images pulsing with playful effervescence: at the outset, Duchamp poses as his alter-ego, Belle Haleine, in a feathered hat and monk-like cloak; the end shows the movie star, Catherine Deneuve, gazing beyond hefty leather tomes and chess sets ("his approach was soft, gentle", she has recalled, comparing his style to a film director.)
His own self-portrait, naturally, is a deeply Dadaist one in which his face is symbolised by the imprint of a dark red hand and bells. Berenice Abbott, the studio accomplice behind his burgeoning reputation for originality in early 1920s Paris, is an early subject.
A pair of literary titans, Andre Breton and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, stand back to back. Pablo Picasso pops up more than once, his intensity apparently a shadow of the photographer’s own brooding character.
In the love affair which began as that of student and apprentice in a French bar and ended with Man Ray on the brink of madness in 1932, Lee Miller models nude at a window, preceding examples of the eternally striking solarisation technique the pair discovered together, where negative prints are transformed, turning dark and light into opposites.
From groups of surrealists in Chaplinesque suits and Coco Chanel in 1935 – both surly and feisty, a study in sleek black – to a surrealist chessboard and the artist himself, asleep next to a giant desk lamp, beneath a wall-hung mannequin of the female torso, these are images of the unattainably vogue. The abiding sensation, perhaps, is epitomised by Man Ray and Miller’s clash of high fashion and pioneering art.